by Don Peretz
Among those issues postponed until permanent status negotiations in the September 1993 Declaration of Principles, signed by Israel and the PLO, was the problem of the refugees. Indeed, a distinction was implied between refugees and "displaced Palestinians/If the latter defined as those "registered on 4 June 1967" presumably Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza who were "displaced" as a result of the Six-Day War. Agreement to defer consideration of the refugee problem until the last phase of the peace process is indicative of the difficulties that lie ahead in attempts to cope with the issue, which is likely to prove as controversial as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the delineation of borders between Israel and the Palestinian entity or state.
The definition of "refugee" may until now have been merely theoretical, but defining just who is a refugee can become critical. Because there is no agreement on "who is a refugee," there is no agreement on how many Palestinian refugees there are. According to the definition of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), there were over three million Palestinian refugees by the beginning of 1995, a small percent of the total number of refugees in the world. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there were 23 million refugees who had fled across international borders and another 26 million "displaced" within their own countries, or one in every 115 of the world's population in some kind of exile early this year. Refugees counted by the UNHCR include 7.5 million in Africa, 5.7 million in Asia, and six million in Europe; these numbers do not include those displaced within their own countries by eth¬nic partition, such as Bosnia. There were another 2.3 million refugees and an uncounted number of displaced persons in the former Soviet republics. These figures do not include the Palestinian refugees who are in a separate category, under jurisdiction of UNRWA, not the UNHCR.
The largest programs monitored by the UNHCR include numbers of refugees equal to those covered by the UNRWA program: Former Yugoslavia - 3.7 million, Afghanistan - three million, Rwanda and Burundi - two mil¬lion, Liberia - 870,000, and Somalia - 550,000. UNRWA's 1995 operational budget of over U.S.$323 million is far larger than the largest UNHCR pro¬gram - $244.7 million for the 3.7 million refugees in the Balkans.
Why are the Palestinian refugees in a special category? The reason is related to problems of defining refugees that arose after World War II. International law is ambiguous in defining the term, under which, gener¬ally, a refugee is a person who does not have the protection of his country of origin. However, there has never been consensus on a single interna¬tional definition; some governments applied diverse definitions according to the purpose for which the term refugee was used. The 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention was quite precise in defining a refugee as anyone uprooted as a result of violence and the denial of human rights. The emphasis in the Convention was on persecution, i.e., a deliberate act of government against individuals, thus excluding victims of general insecu¬rity, oppression, economic dislocation, or people who did not cross a national boundary to seek refuge. Large numbers of migrants who have not been subjected to individual persecution have not been accepted as refugees although many have received ad hoc humanitarian assistance as de facto or non-Convention refugees. However, as the number of "non ¬Convention refugees" fleeing violent upheavals like those in the Balkans, Africa, and the former Soviet Union multiplies, the international commu¬nity finds increasing difficulty in coping with "refugee" problems.
Differences in defining the term "refugee" have resulted in diverse poli¬cies in dealing with the problem. At times, the UNHCR has been at odds with various governments as a result of these differences. The UNHCR's more generous acceptance of refugee qualifications has in some instances widened the interpretation of who is eligible for assistance. Examples of broadened interpretation of the term include the Organization of African States which in its 1969 Convention of Refugee Problems in Africa includ¬ed anyone "who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domi¬nation or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of national habitat in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality." The 1951 Cartagena Declaration covering Central American refugees included "persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order." The Convention of Europe Defining Refugee Status applies to those "unable or unwilling for ... varied reasons to return to their countries of origin." In the United States and Great Britain, those seeking refuge are required to establish not only their own motivations for flight, but prove to the authorities that there is "reasonable" evidence of persecution should they return to their home countries.
The Palestinian refugee problem has been on the international agenda far longer than most others, and the establishment of UNRWA, the agency charged with dealing with this problem, preceded formation of the UNHCR and most other post-World War II agencies organized to deal with refugee problems. Consequently, the definition of "Palestine refugee" also preceded the various other refugee definitions.
Palestinians registered with UNRWA were deliberately excluded from the competence of the UNHCR and in the 1951 Refugee Convention, on the insistence of the Arab states which regarded the Palestinian problem and its ramifications as sui generis.
The Arab states and the Palestinians them¬selves considered their situation distinctive. In most post-war situations, refugees have sought asylum in host countries rather than return to their orig¬inal homes; whereas the Palestinians, almost unanimously, insisted on the "right of return" to their former homes in Israel. Rather than resettlement, the Palestinians and the Arab states supporting them, demanded repatriation.
The United States, the largest contributor to UNRWA and the country most influential in determining its policies, agreed to support continuation of a separate agency for the Palestinian refugees, largely for political rea¬sons. The American government perceived the refugee problem as a major threat to Middle East stability, and "loss" of the Middle East because of its oil, critical to European recovery during the 1950s, would have been considered a major disaster. Therefore UNRWA's definition of Palestine refugee became generally accepted, although it was not all-inclusive.
UNRWA's definition was to a large extent ad hoc, i.e., it developed as a result of field experience. Lacking an accepted definition of eligibility for refugee assistance, it became increasingly evident that the international community would have to be responsible for the care of hundreds of thousands of displaced victims of the 1948 war. Thus, it was necessary, for administrative reasons, to define the problem including eligibility for assistance. The U.N. General Assembly had never defined the term refugee in its resolutions, leav¬ing it up to UNRWA officials to develop their own criteria.
Initially UNRWA defined a refugee "as a needy person who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood." This definition included some 17,000 Jews who had lived in areas of Palestine taken over by Arab forces during the 1948 war and about 50,000 Arabs liv¬ing within Israel's armistice frontiers. Israel took responsibility for these individuals, and by 1950 they were removed from the UNRWA rolls leaving only Palestine Arabs and a few hundred non-Arab Christian Palestinians outside Israel in UNRWA's refugee category.
During the first year of operations, UNRWA classified 940,000 people as refugees. But under U.N. and u.s. pressure, it was forced to pare down its rolls and enforce a more strict definition of refugee. Rectification of UNRWA rolls resulted in the elimination of tens of thousands from assistance.
Refugees and Descendants
Over the years UNRWA continued to refine its classification until the present working definition was reached. It states that: "A Palestine refugee is a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the conflict in 1948, and who, as a result of the conflict, lost both his home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief [Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, Gaza]. Refugees within this definition and the direct descendants of such refugees are eligible for Agency assistance if they are: registered with UNRWA; living in the area of UNRWA operations; and in need" (UNRWA, UNRWA 1950-1990: Serving Palestine Refugees. Vienna: April 1990). This definition applies to those who left their homes in Palestine and their descendants (author's emphasis). By 1995, the vast majority of those receiving assistance from UNRWA were descendants, registered in the five host areas. Although the number of refugees in this category had increased from 914,000 in 1950 to over three million by 1995, there were several groups of Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict who did not fit UNRWA's definition. They included several hundred thousand Palestinians in "frontier villages" on the Jordan side of the armistice lines who lost their livelihood when they were cut off from fields on the Israel side of the border; several thousand Gazans in a similar situation; several thousand Beduins cut off from traditional grazing areas, and several thou¬sand needy Palestinians in areas beyond UNRWA operations. In the early 1950s, there were more than 300,000 people in these categories who did not fit UNRWA's refugee definition; they were called" other claimants" whom UNRWA was unable to assist because of lack of funds.
The June 1967 war created a new category - about 100,000 who were refugees a second time, having left their original homes in 1948, and their "temporary" residences in Jordan's West Bank during the 1967 war. Another 100,000 indigenous inhabitants of the West Bank who fled to Jordan did not fit UNRWA's refugee definition; they were called "displaced persons" rather than refugees (see above). This "special category" has been the subject of discussion between Israel and Jordan and the PLO, although negotiations over 1948 refugees have been deferred until final status talks.
When the refugee issue is taken up in final status negotiations, one of the first questions likely to create differences of opinion between Israel and the Palestinians will be how to define refugees, the parameters of the prob¬lem, whether or not a token number of those defined as Palestine refugees can return to Israel, how many can be absorbed economically and politi¬cally in the Palestinian state, who will be eligible for compensation, and whether or not Jews who left Arab countries after 1947 are refugees with claims to be balanced off against those of the Palestinians. Because of the complexity of these issues, those negotiating the peace process may spend several years before major progress is achieved on the refugee question.